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What Are Ultra Processed Foods? How Diet Impacts Health

Learn to identify the health impacts of ultra processed foods

Diet plays an important role in supporting our long-term health. While there are plenty of opinions on which diet is “best,” studies show one of the most important changes we can make is reducing our reliance on processed and ultra processed foods.

What are ultra processed foods?

Max Goldstein, MS, RD, CCMS, teaches patients about nutrition and healthy eating at Yale New Haven Health’s Digestive Health Center Teaching Kitchen. He says the Nova food classification system developed in Brazil is a helpful tool when thinking about food, which in this case is broken down into four main groups.

First there are unprocessed foods which include whole plants and meats. Next there are processed culinary foods such as butter, cream, oil and flour; followed by processed foods which can include items like cheeses, breads and smoked or cured meats including hot dogs and deli meat. Ultra processed foods include sugary sweetened beverages and packaged snacks, which can include lots of syrups and gums.

“One of the key differences you can identify is that with processed foods, they often still retain the basic identity of the original food. Whereas ultra processed food may not resemble any unprocessed food,” said Goldstein.

Ultra processed foods also tend to be full of excess salt, sugar and fat. It’s a combination that tastes delicious but doesn’t exist in nature.

“There are high sugar plants like fruits. There are high fat plants like coconut or avocado. But there’s nothing in nature that has that combination of sugar, fat and salt that makes food super palatable. That combination makes us want to keep eating,” said Goldstein.

In addition, ultra processed foods tend to lack water, fiber, vitamins and minerals – key nutrients that help us feel full for longer.

Health impacts of ultra processed foods

We have long known that a diet high in processed foods can lead to obesity. However, ultra processed foods are also linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and many cancers.

“There's a significant link between the consumption of smoked and cured meats, which are definitely more on that ultra processed side of the spectrum, and increased risk of cancers across the board, especially GI cancers,” said Goldstein. “I think you can enjoy a lot of stuff in moderation. Smoked and cured meats though are probably one of the few food groups you could really make a case for entirely avoiding.”

There is also a growing field of study looking at the impact of ultra processed foods on mental health. It makes sense that eating foods full of sugar, salt and fat makes people feel more sluggish. Ultra processed foods may also have an impact on the gut microbiome, which has been found to have a strong link to mood, anxiety and depression.

How to eat healthier

Goldstein acknowledges that it’s nearly impossible for most people to completely avoid all processed foods. But there are some things everyone can do to help reduce their reliance on them. Goldstein recommends the following:

  1. Get comfortable reading nutrition labels. Aim to choose packaged foods that have fewer ingredients and be sure to look at the item’s sodium, sugar and fiber content. *See table below.
  2. Be aware of advertising and marketing. If a package says the food contains ‘no high fructose corn syrup’ it may still be packed with added sugar, which can include ingredients such as raw sugar, maple syrup, molasses or fructose.
  3. Take advantage of minimally processed foods to cook more at home. If you are short on time, and most people are, feel free to rely on better for you items like salt-free canned beans and ready to make rice.
  4. Incorporate more plant foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds into your diet.
  5. To make lasting changes, start small. Bring mixed nuts instead of chips to lunch. Once you have gotten into the habit of eating healthier snacks, add in another new habit. Maybe it’s walking in the afternoons or drinking water instead of soda.

Patients looking to make lasting changes should check in with their primary care clinician, who can order blood work and make the appropriate referrals, which may be to a specialist, dietitian or even the Teaching Kitchen.

“Patients are still going to their regular provider visits, but the Teaching Kitchen is giving them a bit more confidence,” said Goldstein. “They’re starting to drop some weight because what we’re doing is giving them the hands-on experience to practice what their providers are telling them in their regularly scheduled appointments."

Goldstein says not everyone’s goal is to lose a significant amount of weight. Sometimes learning basic knife skills is the push someone needs to cook more at home and reduce their reliance on pre-packaged foods.